Minnesota Vikings: Reggie Bush

Stafford/HendersonGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford's Lions are playing for pride, Erin Henderson's Vikings to send off the Metrodome.

When the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions squared off in Week 1, both teams had legitimate designs on playoff spots in what was expected to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Now, they’re the only two teams with no shot of winning one of the most mediocre divisions in football, and headed into their Week 17 rematch, both the Vikings and Lions could be playing their final games with their current coaches. The Vikings have reportedly been doing their homework on potential replacements for Leslie Frazier, while Jim Schwartz could also be on his way out in Detroit after the team followed a 6-3 start with five losses in its next six games. The final game at Mall of America Field (aka the Metrodome) could also be the last before each team embarks on some major changes.

To get you ready for the game and for what might be next for both teams, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discussed the matchup and the future of these NFC North foes.

Goessling: Michael, I’d wish you a relaxing offseason, but I think we’re probably both a ways from that starting, in light of what’s going on with these two teams. Frazier has been unable to get consistent quarterback play or reliable defense, particularly against the pass and at the end of games, but as usual, what’s happening with the Lions seems more combustible than that. After another late-season meltdown, do you think there’s any chance Schwartz survives as coach?

Rothstein: I guess there's always a chance, but I have an extremely difficult time seeing it after the Lions lost five of six games entering Sunday and played themselves out of a divisional title. That plus the mistakes Detroit has made, from turnovers to penalties to fourth-quarter collapses, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

But this is the Ford family, and it has shown more patience than almost any other owner in any sport, so there's always that chance it just rides things out with Schwartz. Still, it would send a pretty bad message after four seasons out of the playoffs in five seasons under Schwartz.

Flipping that question back to you -- what do you think Minnesota does with Frazier? The players really seem to like him, so do you think that plays into what we'll see Sunday?

Goessling: I have a hard time seeing Frazier survive, as much as the players like him. Adrian Peterson said on Sunday he planned to go to the Wilf family after the season and let the owners know he wanted Frazier to stay on as coach. He’s also said he wants to play the rest of his career for Frazier. Those are pretty strong statements from a guy whom the Vikings probably want to keep happy more than anyone else on their roster. But they also wouldn’t give Frazier a contract extension after he went 10-6 last season, and with everything that’s looked disjointed at times this year -- five blown leads in the last minute of games, the reluctance to use Cordarrelle Patterson early in the season and, of course, the mess at quarterback -- I can’t see the Wilfs standing pat. GM Rick Spielman is responsible for a fair share of this, possibly more than Frazier, but heading into a new stadium, the Vikings are looking for a jolt. They’re more likely to get that with a new coach than a new GM.

Shifting to Sunday’s game, the Lions came back to beat the Vikings in September because of how well they used Reggie Bush, but he hasn’t looked like the same guy in a number of games since then. Is that mostly attributable to the calf injury he’s had, or is there something else going on?

Rothstein: It's tough to tell with Bush. I think he is, in some ways, hampered by the calf injury and all of the earlier injuries he's suffered this season. There are also the issues of his fumbles, which have been a problem all season, and his dropped passes. Bush is still an electrifying player, but his ineffectiveness at times has been due to how Detroit chooses to use him. He sliced up the Vikings with screen plays and short passes out of the backfield, and Detroit hasn't done as much with him in that area lately. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Joique Bell, a gifted runner who plays hard.

Sticking with the game, and really this might be more of a finality point as well, how does Jared Allen view Sunday? Is this it for him in Minnesota, and how much of a problem can he cause for a somewhat-struggling Lions offense?

Goessling: I do think this is it for Allen in Minnesota. He’ll be a free agent after the season, he’s carrying a cap figure of more than $17 million this year and he’s talked in recent weeks about how he’d rather retire than be a situational pass-rusher. He might be overestimating his value, and he could be singing a different tune when he does get out into the free-agent market in March, but I don’t think he’ll be back with the Vikings. They gave an extension to Brian Robison during the season, and they could also bring back Everson Griffen, who’s inconsistent (and a bit unpredictable) but immensely talented.

Allen has talked about how he’s still creating opportunities but just hasn’t been able to finish a few sacks. But when did you ever hear him say that in the past? It seems he’s lost a bit of his ability to get around the edge in time, and a handful of his sacks have come because he’s so relentless. The Bengals did a fantastic job of getting the ball out quick on Sunday, and Allen was shut out. If the Lions can do what they did in September, it’s possible to keep Allen pretty quiet.

Last one from me: What kind of an effort do you expect from the Lions on Sunday? It seems a bit like they’ve packed it in after all the losses, and with nothing on the line now, I can’t imagine they’re going to suddenly be able to reignite themselves. Will the shot at an 8-8 record and the chance to save Schwartz a little face be enough, or will the Vikings close down the Metrodome against an uninspired opponent?

Rothstein: That's one of the biggest questions of this week, and it is a question I really don't know the answer to. I think it depends how much they have left. Calvin Johnson is banged-up. Matthew Stafford has struggled in the second half of the season. DeAndre Levy was hobbling out of the locker room Sunday. There are a lot of guys hurting at this point, a lot of key guys for the Lions going forward.

It might be the most unanswerable question with this team right now. All season, even during the losing stretch, there was the possibility of the playoffs and a division title to cling to. Now there's just pride. It'll be an interesting thing to see.

So I'll finish up with this for you. Since this is the last game in the Metrodome -- and my first -- is there any particular memory that stands out about the place to you?

Goessling: Boy, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been watching all kinds of games -- NFL, MLB, college football, college basketball and high school football -- since I was a kid, and I’ll have a piece on my blog on Friday with some of those memories. But I’ll share one quick story. It was from one of my first college football games when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was the fall of 2001 against Purdue, and there were too many bizarre things that happened in the game to recount here, but it wound up in overtime, and after Purdue scored, the Gophers lost the game on a finish that could’ve happened only in the Metrodome.

Here’s what happened: Travis Cole threw a touchdown pass to Antoine Henderson that would’ve tied the game. Henderson was clearly inbounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Why? Well, the Gophers used to paint their end zones gold but left a strip of green turf between the gold paint and the sideline to make it easier to convert the field for Vikings games. Henderson’s foot was inbounds but outside the gold paint, so the official lost track of the sideline and called him out of bounds. That’s kind of the Metrodome in a nutshell -- built to be serviceable for any number of different sports, but not really ideal for anything. Still, at a cost of $55 million in 1982, it’s certainly paid for itself several times over.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As successful as the Detroit Lions were at throwing screens to Reggie Bush in their 34-24 win over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday -- and as ably as the Chicago Bears can approximate that approach with Matt Forte -- it'd be surprising not to see the Bears try to neutralize the Vikings pass rush with a series of short throws on Sunday.

Forte
Forte
But whether the Bears can turn that into as volatile a weapon as the Lions did remains to be seen.

Forte caught 29 of his 44 passes last year on throws that were released within 2.5 seconds, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which means he saw plenty of designed passes or dump-offs to neutralize a pass rush. He's not the explosive threat Bush is, though, and the Vikings will have had a week to fix what went wrong against the Lions, when Bush posted 101 receiving yards -- with 77 coming on his screen pass that went for a touchdown.

"They had a decent play dialed up, but we had some free bodies that took some poor angles to the football and that’s important," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "We always talk about hustling to the football, but you want to hustle and run smart with good angles. That’s one thing we can improve on is the angles that we take to the football because there are some free hitters on that play."

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford connected on 15 of the 20 passes he threw within 2.5 seconds, posting 210 yards on those throws. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't nearly as dynamic with his early throws last week -- he went 11-for-16 for 68 yards when he got rid of the ball within 2.5 seconds last week -- but if the Vikings can't tackle Forte any more effectively than they did Bush, the Bears could find more success this week.

They certainly won't be the last team to try it, especially if the Vikings have as much trouble tackling as they did last week. The heart of Minnesota's defense is its pass rush, but the Vikings won't have a chance to showcase it if they don't tackle better on short passes.

"[The Bears] do a lot of max protection, a lot of play-action stuff," defensive end Jared Allen said. "I swear it's the same every week. You have to be good on first and second down. If you're good on first and second down, you will have opportunities to get to the quarterback."

Vikings need to close the screen door

September, 9, 2013
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As first impressions go, the Lions' opportunity to introduce Reggie Bush to the NFC North by way of the Minnesota Vikings couldn't have worked out much better. The Lions added Bush this offseason to help their running game, yes, but also to add an underneath component to their passing game when defenses focused on stopping Calvin Johnson.

And in the Vikings, they had a Week 1 opponent with a new middle linebacker, a secondary trying to adjust to the departure of its best open-field tackler and a formidable pass rush that could cover for some of the uncertainty if it could get to Matthew Stafford.

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsThe Vikings continued their trend of falling flat on the road against NFC North foes with a Week 1 loss at Detroit.
The game was a perfect crucible for the Lions. Bush posted 191 combined yards, slashing the Vikings for 101 receiving yards mostly on screens. And for Minnesota, it quickly opened up a wound in the defense that the Chicago Bears and Matt Forte might be able to exploit this weekend.

Bush gained a career-high 104 yards after the catch, according to ESPN Stats & Information (for those of you trying to do the math there, he caught a few of those screens behind the line of scrimmage). He did most of his damage when he floated through the middle of the Vikings defense on a screen for a 77-yard touchdown that coach Leslie Frazier said should not have happened.

"We were kind of blocked out on a couple where we needed certain guys to fit in certain positions," Frazier said. "They didn’t, and it resulted in the one big play, the 77-yarder. The others [were] maybe a 6-yarder or 8-yarder, but the 77-yarder was the back breaker. We have to do a better job of fitting it. That play should not end up being a touchdown, a 77-yard touchdown. We have to do a better job of fitting up screens."

If I'm the Vikings, I'd be just as concerned about the effect quick passes can have against a deep defensive line. Opponents used the tactic with some success last year, posting the fifth-highest quarterback rating in the league against them on passes that took 2.5 seconds or less to deliver. That was the magic number defensive end Brian Robison used on Monday, and he estimated Stafford threw only three or four times after holding the ball that long. The Vikings' only sack came from Jared Allen in the fourth quarter, and Stafford was pressured on just four drop-backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"It's frustrating, but you've got to keep working," Robison said. "Sometimes, things will come free, and you get there. But you've got to give your 'hat's off' to Stafford and that offense. They were getting the ball out of there so fast."

I'll be interested to see how much the Bears employ a similar tactic next week. Coach Marc Trestman has said he wants to use Forte more often in the passing game, and Forte caught four passes for 41 yards in Chicago's win Sunday. The Bears' offensive line has had enough trouble over the years, both specifically with the Vikings and in general, that Trestman could see a similar opportunity to exploit the Vikings defense after watching tape of the Lions game.

Until the Vikings prove they can stop it, they'll probably see a heavy dose of what Detroit executed.

"We’ve encountered that before. It’s not the first team to use that strategy," Frazier said. "There are some things that we’ve got to do better when teams do that. I would not be surprised if we saw some of that this coming weekend as well. We’ll have to devise a better plans for teams that do that, that don’t let us rush the quarterback."

Rapid Reaction: Lions 34, Vikings 24

September, 8, 2013
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DETROIT -- My thoughts on the Minnesota Vikings' 34-24 loss to the Detroit Lions.

What it means: With a September schedule that included two division road games and a trip to London for a home game, it was important for the Vikings to get off to a good start. But after blowing a 14-6 lead on the road and losing for the ninth time in 10 NFC North road games, they'll have to win in Chicago next week to avoid starting 0-2. The Vikings hope to get defensive tackle Kevin Williams back, and they'll have a week to plug some of the leaks in their run defense that emerged with the six-time Pro Bowler's absence on Sunday. But in what looked like one of the team's more favorable road matchups, the Vikings missed an opportunity.

Stock watch: Falling -- Vikings' defense. They allowed the Lions to post 469 yards, generating little pass rush on Matthew Stafford and getting gashed by Reggie Bush on both the ground and on screen passes. Trailing by three with a chance to get the ball back midway through the fourth quarter, the Vikings committed two penalties on third down -- a roughing-the-passer call on Letroy Guion and a pass interference penalty on Xavier Rhodes -- to extend a Lions drive that would turn into a touchdown.

Simpson emerges: After a disappointing first season in Minnesota, receiver Jerome Simpson caught seven passes for 140 yards on Sunday, hauling in two deep passes from Christian Ponder and posting the third-most yards of his career. His 47-yard reception in the third quarter, where he dove to track down a ball directly over his head, set up a touchdown that got the Vikings within three.

Peterson neutralized: After he galloped 78 yards on the Vikings' first play from scrimmage, Adrian Peterson had a quiet day. He gained just 13 yards on his next 16 carries, scoring two more touchdowns but struggling to take pressure off Ponder, who threw three interceptions and was sacked three times.

What's next: The Vikings (0-1) travel to Chicago next Sunday, looking for their first win in the Windy City since Peterson's rookie year in 2007.
Earlier this week, Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said Marvin Mitchell was the team's starting weak-side linebacker "as we sit here today." As tenuous as that plan sounded at the time, it's apparently the one the team is carrying into Sunday's season-opener against Detroit.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop said on Thursday that Vikings coaches told him he won't see much playing time on Sunday, with Mitchell set to start and Bishop not playing on special teams. The Vikings signed Bishop, who missed all of last year with a torn hamstring, to a one-year contract in June, and he looked stronger in the team's final two preseason games after missing the exhibition opener against the Houston Texans and turning in an uneven performance against the Buffalo Bills.

"(I'm) just waiting for my opportunity," Bishop said.

As much as the Lions throw the ball, Mitchell might not see a lot of playing time, either. Erin Henderson and Chad Greenway would be on the field in the team's nickel package, and if last year's two games against the Lions are any indication, the Vikings probably won't use more than two linebackers most of the time against Detroit.

In the first game last year, Greenway and Jasper Brinkley each logged more than 70 snaps, with Mitchell (the third linebacker that week while Henderson was hurt) only playing nine. Their linebackers got more playing time in the second game, with Greenway on the field for every snap, Henderson playing 73 percent of the team's defensive snaps and Brinkley seeing action on 52 percent of them. But defending the Lions starts with the pass, and that could mean more action for a third cornerback (like Xavier Rhodes) than a third linebacker, anyway.

What remains to be seen is how much Reggie Bush changes what defenses do against the Lions. Detroit threw the ball more than any team in the league last year, and Bush could see the ball almost as much in the air as he could on the ground. His presence might cause the Vikings to pay more attention to the run, but defensive coordinator Alan Williams said he doesn't see the Lions changing much.

"We can guess and try and predict what they’ll do with him," Williams said. "But we just make sure we have to go out and read our keys and focus on what we’re supposed to do, because if we hunt up too many snakes or too many ghosts, we won’t do anything. So we’ve got to look to see what they’ve done in the past with their backs and with their offense. I don’t think they’ll change a whole bunch from years past, last year or the year before that."

Double Coverage: Vikings at Lions

September, 5, 2013
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Leslie Frazier, Jim Schwartz AP Photo Neither Leslie Frazier nor Jim Schwartz enters the season with much long-term job security.
Two teams in win-or-else mode will open the season Sunday at Ford Field.

In 2012, the Detroit Lions had their third losing season in four years under coach Jim Schwartz. A fourth in five years could end his tenure.

The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, decided not to extend the contract of coach Leslie Frazier after his 10-6 breakthrough season last year. His deal is up in 2014, and assuming the Vikings don't want to bring him back in a lame-duck situation, Frazier will either get a contract extension or be fired after this season.

The Vikings swept the Lions in the 2012 regular season after the Lions did the same in 2011. ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert discuss the matchup:

Kevin Seifert: Ben, the Lions have had all offseason to prepare for Adrian Peterson, who gashed them for 273 yards in two games last season. They've got Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley playing next to each other on the inside and overall have a bigger and more physical defensive line than they had last year. I'm not saying the Lions are going to shut down Peterson on Sunday, but I do think the Vikings can't go into the game relying on him to carry their offense. So that brings me to the big question surrounding this team: Do you think the Vikings' passing game has improved enough to do its share?

Ben Goessling: They'd certainly have to hope so based on what they did for Christian Ponder this offseason, adding Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson to their group of receivers. But the thing that concerns me with Ponder in this matchup is how he'll respond to the pressure the Lions will bring. He still seemed to struggle with that in the preseason, though he had one of his best games of the year against the Lions in the Metrodome last November. The Lions pressured him on just 11 drop-backs in both games last season, but if they can get to him more often than that, I don't like Ponder's chances of carrying the Vikings, should he need to do so. And if the Lions can exploit the Vikings' new-look secondary, Ponder could find himself playing from behind, where he hasn't been terribly good. The question is, will the Lions be able to burn the Vikings with their passing game enough to put Ponder in a hole?

Seifert: That's a fair question, Ben. The Lions seemed to do what they needed to this offseason by signing running back Reggie Bush, who would presumably keep defenses off balance and give the Lions a big-time outlet for all those times when Calvin Johnson was in the middle of some kind of exotic coverages.

But for many reasons, the offense never really looked sharp in the preseason. The most obvious factor was that Johnson didn't play much, of course, but Bush had almost no running room behind a still-evolving offensive line. It also seemed pretty clear that the Lions don't have a No. 2 receiver to play alongside Johnson, a role that was once targeted for Titus Young before his well-publicized off-field issues.

With all that said, however, the connection between Stafford and Johnson is real and special. There is every reason to consider them a formidable challenge for the Vikings -- especially considering the state of their secondary. Why don't you fill in our good readers on that situation, Ben?

Goessling: I'd be happy to. Essentially, it's my opinion that the Vikings' secondary depth might be the biggest issue facing their defense headed into the season. As a whole, it's probably the second-biggest concern behind Ponder.

The Vikings let Antoine Winfield go in March, moving ahead with a secondary that features one injury-prone corner (Chris Cook), a second-year man trying to replace Winfield's excellent slot coverage skills (Josh Robinson) and a rookie (Xavier Rhodes). There's enough talent and size to make it work, especially with safeties Harrison Smith and Jamarca Sanford offering help in coverage, but the Vikings are rolling the dice with the cornerbacks they've got. The Lions might not be deep enough at receiver to fully test the Vikings' depth, but Calvin Johnson is as big of a challenge for Minnesota as Adrian Peterson is for Detroit.

The Vikings bottled Johnson up at Ford Field last year, bracketing him with Smith or Sanford on top of Cook and hitting him throughout the game. But with Cook injured at the Metrodome, Johnson went wild for 207 yards. It will be interesting to see how the Lions use him, and what kinds of matchups they can generate against an inexperienced secondary.

You brought up Bush earlier, too, Kevin. The Vikings' run defense isn't what it used to be, and it looks like they could be dealing with injuries at the defensive tackle position this week. Stafford threw the ball a combined 93 times against the Vikings last year, and lost both games. Will Bush be effective enough to give the Lions the balance they need to win?

Seifert: Let's put it this way. If the Vikings use the typical kind of defense the Lions usually see for Calvin Johnson, and Bush still can't get any yards against a depleted defense, then the Lions are going to have problems this season. The Lions have to be able to run the ball this year better than they did in 2012. Teams gave them more six-man boxes than any team in the NFL and they still couldn't get it done. It was a primary offseason goal and it has to be better this season.

Any last words, Ben? You're going to be out there in Detroit. I'll be elsewhere. What's the one thing that has to happen to ensure a Vikings victory? From the Lions' perspective, I'll say it will be Bush getting 100 rushing yards.

Goessling: I think it's Ponder playing like he did in the second game against the Lions last year. The Vikings don't need to get into a shootout -- and if the game turns into that, they probably won't be able to keep up anyway -- but they need confident, reliable quarterback play this season, and this game seems as good as any for him to start it.

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